If you ask most salespeople if they are a taker of orders or a giver of ideas, most would say they are givers. Great sales leadership has as much to do with providing intangible benefit as product value. Most salespeople probably believe they are a great “partner” to their customers and a provider of great intangible benefit. But the proof is in action, not bravado.

Ask yourself when the last time was that you unselfishly provided an actionable sales idea that helped your customer—or, even more importantly, a prospect—compete in the marketplace. That is the real litmus test by which you can evaluate your “partnership”: the content of your conversation with customers and prospects. If your conversation is focused on product questions and presentations, then you are merely an average salesperson. But if your dialogues unselfishly focus on business topics that, although they may have no immediate sales impact, provide sales benefit to your customers and prospects, then you have achieved the status of a true Sales Leader.

Illustration: Daniel Baxter Consider Royce, a national accounts manager for a product manufacturer. When I first met Royce in 2000, he was a sales representative with virtually no industry experience. In fact, he was a radish salesman prior to his entry into our industry. His peers perceived his lack of experience to be a severe disadvantage that would hold him back in his career.

Instead, he turned his lack of industry knowledge into a strength that enabled him to differentiate himself from other, “more experienced” salespeople. Rather than try to push product, he tried to learn the industry and used every meeting with prospects and clients as learning opportunities. His focus on learning enabled him to become a facilitator of high-quality business ideas for prospects and clients alike.

We traveled together on a day of sales calls and discovered that some builders were on the cutting edge of a new trend: They were putting the laundry room on the second floor of their homes, thus offering an option that was attractive to potential buyers who wished to avoid unnecessary trips up and down stairs. At the time, this was an innovative option that helped numerous builders differentiate their homes.

After a number of sales calls, we encountered a builder who had completed a model home that did not include this feature. During the meeting, Royce, once again in an effort to learn the industry, focused his conversation on the builder's business challenges. As you might expect, a funny thing happened on the way to learning the business—he made a sale.

After listening carefully and learning that this particular builder was trying to attract the upscale buyer, Royce simply asked, “Have you considered putting a laundry room on the second floor with the bedrooms?” The builder considered this a foolish question and actually became mildly antagonistic. But Royce was steadfast and calmly explained that he and I had visited a local Parade of Homes and observed numerous houses that were constructed with this unique configuration.

The now curious builder began asking more questions about our observations. Not surprisingly, he agreed that he'd better take a look around to see what his competitors were doing. Then he remarked, “It is nice to find a salesman who has something worth talking about!”

Perhaps you are wondering what product Royce was selling. The astute reader already realizes that it doesn't matter what the product was ... or is. A great Sales Leader sells himself and brings business ideas to the table. Any salesman can get the customer lumber or roofing or siding or mill-work or any number of products. But only a Sales Leader is able to differentiate himself by the quality of his ideas.

In order to achieve greater success in the field, strive to learn more about your customers' and prospects' business. Then share a few ideas. The following tips will help.

1- Learn how houses are sold. Too many salespeople mistakenly act in a manner that suggests that builders are in the business of building homes. In fact, in today's market builders have in part become specialized developers of property and marketing specialists. Change your focus on your future sales and, rather than try to figure out how to sell your customers, strive to figure out how they sell theirs. The findings you will encounter may surprise you. I once met three builders all competing in the same market for the same target audience. All three builders produced nearly the same number of homes in the same price range. Yet when asked how they sell their homes, their answers were completely different. One builder used the local real estate sales leader; another employed his sister-in-law; the third had his own real estate license and sold his own houses. Try to truly discover how houses are sold and you will be equipped with knowledge that will elevate your status with clients.

2-Share sales ideas. Suppose you could waltz into your competitor's office and steal its trade secrets. Wouldn't that be great? Now realize that the same is true for your customers. The source of competitive information that they have is you! Take the knowledge you are gaining during your sales visits and give your clients unique ideas that will make them more powerful in the market.

3-Be discreet. You may be thinking it is indiscreet to share your clients' proprietary information—and you'd be right. There are trade secrets and then there are industry trends; a Sales Leader knows the difference. Be sure to offer insights and ideas that do not impinge upon the proprietary practices of your customers.

I was asked recently to share with a group of business consultants ways I have built my business. One of the guests asked me a question that gave me pause. He asked me to describe my “pitch.” Much to my temporary chagrin, I realized that I do not have a pitch. But then I explained that I have successfully found clients not because of a pitch about me or my business, but because of an idea I can provide them about their business.

Rick Davis If you have to give a pitch about what you can do, then you already have failed. Instead of talking about your business, strive to learn about your prospect's business. After listening carefully, you will usually be able to share an idea that will ultimately help them become more successful in their business. The proof isn't in what you promise but what you deliver.

–Rick Davis is president of Building Leaders, Inc., a Chicago-based sales training organization. 773.769.4409. E-mail: rickdavis@buildingleaders.com